My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori. (Owen)

Regeneration by Pat Barker is an attempt to illustrate the lasting psychological effects the helplessness and terror of no man’s land had on survivors of the First Great War. Rather than focusing on the battlefields of World War I, Barker sets Regeneration in Craiglockhart hospital, a real hospital treating soldiers for war neurosis during the period dramatised in the novel. Regeneration revolves around Capt. Siegfried Sassoon’s protest of the war (an historic event), and Dr. W.H.R. Rivers’ diagnosis that he does not “even think [Sassoon’s] got war neurosis.” Barker’s dramatisation of the relationship between Rivers and Sassoon attempts to demonstrate the meaninglessness of war while ostensibly forcing Rivers to face the real horrors endured by his patients (Barker 15). However, Regeneration only briefly examines Rivers’ fear that he may be harming, rather than helping, his patients; and it is the only during the ‘treatment’ of Callan that Barker dramatizes the prevailing ‘procedures’ performed on those deemed “indifferent to [their own] condition” and told “‘you must speak, but I shall not listen to anything you have to say.’” (Barker 227, 231; emphasis in original). The interplay between the characters portrayed in Regeneration illustrates the complex relationships between doctor and patient, officer and enlisted, and father and son. And, while Barker expertly stages these complex relationships against the horrifying backdrop of the First Great War, she fails to explore the dominant political, medical, and social attitudes surrounding war neurosis during this period. In this paper, I will demonstrate that Pat Barker’s Regeneration is a misleading attempt to portray the psychological effects WWI had on soldiers and misrepresents the inhumane treatments inflicted upon those suffering from war neurosis during the period the author purports to dramatise. Furthermore, Barker’s failure to accurately represent the conditions and procedures faced by those suffering from war neurosis, shell-shock, and what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), reinforces invalid assumptions and causes further harm to soldiers with these illnesses—both today and in the past.

What do I mean by the ‘inhumane treatments’ mentioned above, and to what conditions and procedures were those suffering from war neurosis subjected? To answer these questions, per Cathryn Corns “there were over 8000 courts martial for capital offences during the Great War, resulting in 3080 death sentences, of which 351 were carried out,” and charges of cowardice led to the execution of at least 18 men (Corns 53–54). With a total of 3080 officers and enlisted sentenced to death compared to the 700,000 (approximate) British casualties of WWI, the ratio of reported courts martial death sentences to combat deaths is 1/200 (Baker). Furthermore, Corns is careful to note that “the information we have today is highly selective” and “there were occasions when proper procedures were not followed,” indicating inaccuracies in the official number of courts martial (Corns 54). As an added complication, no clear distinction between desertion and cowardice existed at the time; in the case of 2Lt. Eric Poole, who “in the early days of the Somme… was knocked unconscious by a shell and evacuated to a base hospital suffering from shell-shock. [When] his unit was ordered to the front line; Poole stated he was unwell and saw the doctor of a neighbouring battalion, but then disappeared for two days.” Upon his return, Poole faced a court martial and, regardless of his commander’s recommendation to send Poole home, “the court martial went ahead, Poole was found guilty of desertion,” and subsequently executed. Poole’s execution, “despite evidence describing him as confused,” indicates the lack of distinction between desertion, cowardice (a crime covering many offences with no exact definition[1]), and mental illness (Corns 54). Furthermore, 2Lt. Poole’s execution for desertion when he was, by his admission, experiencing symptoms of shell-shock is not an isolated example; soldiers who had PTSD were regularly charged with the crimes of cowardice and desertion, and sentenced to death. To illustrate this, per Ted Bogacz: “there was widespread fear after the armistice that among the 3000 soldiers convicted… [of] cowardice, desertion or other crimes… there [was] a considerable number who had been suffering from [war neurosis]… and had been unjustly sentenced” (Bogacz 228). Barker’s total avoidance of issues surrounding improper courts martial (other than her portrayal of Sassoon’s desire for a court martial), undocumented battlefield executions, and how these courts martial and executions were a common, if not the prevailing, form of ‘treatment’ administered for war neurosis, undermines the entire narrative of Regeneration.

In the 15 April 1992 edition of The New York Times, Herbert Mitgang writes: “we [as readers] are aware that [Barker] is inventing dialogue for her characters, but it is an informed invention” (Mitgang). Does Mitgang’s review of Barker’s ‘informed invention’ capture the story of the “man [who] was shot ‘to encourage the [other men]?’” How about the dreadful fact that, after receiving a guilty verdict for cowardice, a “guilty man frequently had to attend parade with his battalion, at which his sentence was read out and [afterwards] he was often shot by men of his own unit?” (Corns 55). When Mitgang remarks “rather than give Sassoon a court martial… the army declared him temporarily insane and sent him to Craiglockhart,” does his anecdotal connection between a court martial and a personal favour include the story of Lt. Edwin Dyett? (Mitgang; emphasis added). Lt. Dyett’s “chief crime was [getting] lost in fog” and despite the court’s recommendation of mercy on the grounds of his age (21) and that the fog was “likely to have [had] a detrimental effect,” Lt. Dyett was convicted of desertion and “shot on 5 January 1917” (Corns 54; emphasis added). Does Mitgang’s review consider the abject terror Lt. Dyett felt as his friends and allies tied him to a post, forcibly wrapped a filthy rag over his eyes, and seconds stretched to hours as he waited for a fellow officer to order his men to ‘fire’ and end his life? No, it seems both Mitgang and Barker are unaware of the fact that those lucky few who made it to Craiglockhart are not even remotely representative of the torture, death (sometimes at the hands of their friends), rejection, and marginalisation inflicted upon those with war neurosis. Mitgang’s question “can there be compromise between conscience and military responsibility?” ignores Barker’s avoidance of the real conditions imposed upon those displaying symptoms of war neurosis during WWI. Instead, Mitgang’s review assumes that Regeneration represents actual events and “extends the boundaries of antiwar fiction,” without acknowledging Barker’s avoidance of the issue she purports to describe (Mitgang). Furthermore, Mitgang’s review serves to reinforce false perceptions of war neurosis, shell-shock, and PTSD prevalent during WWI and strengthens the falsity that a broken soldier is weak, and thus a broken soldier is undeserving of our help; false perceptions many with these illnesses continue to fight to this day.

On the few occasions in Regeneration when Rivers is brought face to face with the horrors of the battlefield, both overseas and on the homefront, Barker treats these moments as emotionally charged, but impersonal vignettes. Rivers’ reaction to Yealland’s “methods of treatment” and the disturbing revelation these “treatments” include the application of “very strong electric currents… to [Callan’s] neck and throat [as well as] hot plates… applied repeatedly to the back of [his] throat, and lighted cigarettes to [his] tongue,” solicits no reaction from Rivers (Barker 227). Instead, Rivers sits and silently observes as “Callan [smiles] and the key electrode [is] applied to the side of his mouth.” At this moment, it becomes impossible to argue that Yealland’s actions amount to anything other than the sadistic torture of a powerless subordinate for the heinous crime of having a smile he finds “most objectionable.” It is during this final, outrageous display of cruelty, while Rivers sits and silently watches Callan’s outright torture without offering a single word of objection, that this novel’s pretence of advocacy for those with war neurosis falls apart (Barker 233). By this scene’s end, Barker has transformed Callan’s misery into his remedy, and Yealland’s horrific behaviour into benevolence; in explicit, non-metaphorical terms, this scene says: ‘sure, Callan was tortured, but when the treatment had run its course, he could talk. Therefore, the treatment worked.’ The moment Barker demonstrates Callan’s illness as the product of weakness and not a result of his war experiences, Yealland’s actions become altruistic. Consequently, one can no longer find any actual suffering in Prior’s muteness, Willard’s psychosomatic paralysis, or Rivers’ revelation that “the change he demanded of [his patients] was not trivial.” All these incidences of actual suffering become suspect due to the portrayal of Callan’s muteness as a weakness rather than an illness (Barker 48). Then, without even a moment spared to reflect on Callan’s torture, the novel moves directly to Sassoon’s shocking return to his pre-Craiglockhart sentiments about the war, and the book’s concluding words: “discharged to duty” (Barker 249). Sassoon, the real man, casts off the bounds of weakness and revels in his immediate restoration to his rightful place in the “sausage factory” of war. As a man of real courage, Sassoon needs only a brief stop in Garrington to “explain [himself] to the pacifists” on his triumphant return to the field of glory (Barker 247). Sassoon’s courage leaves no room for Callan’s cowardice—real or otherwise.

Not all early reviews of Regeneration were positive, in New Statesman & Society Harriett Gilbert writes: “between them, [Sassoon and Rivers] try to tease out the meanings of courage, duty, and masculinity… [but the] problem is that none of [these explorations] are pushed to [their] imaginative limits.” Adding, “no matter how theoretically disturbing, in practice the book remains resolutely nice: as though in her pity for the damaged young men, Barker has decided to return them to the safety… [of] a land where their worst nightmares can be soothed by a matron’s protective hand” (Gilbert 37; emphasis added). Here, Gilbert criticises Barker for reasons similar to my own. Rather than investigating a shameful and disturbing truth, Barker focuses on the facile relationship between an egomaniac (Sassoon) and his doctor (Rivers) and renders the suffering of the truly ill characters as mere footnotes in the overreaching arc of the relationship between two, ostensibly, rational men. In one of these footnotes, upon the return of Prior’s speech, to which Rivers replies, “two L’s in physically” and immediately transitions to doing his best to fill the role of “empathetic wallpaper,”—a role he is patently terrible at filling. Rivers is later “surprised by Prior’s sudden capitulation” after acquiescing to Prior’s repeated requests for hypnosis (Barker 49–51). In this scene, Rivers—a doctor acutely aware of Prior’s condition—fails to recognise that Prior’s request amounts to an explicit declaration of the cause of his distress. Prior may well have shouted: ‘I am ashamed of what I might have done, I need your help to confront my shame and uncertainty,’ but Rivers cannot comprehend Prior’s actions as a desperate cry for help. Both Prior and Rivers believe a man showing weakness is as shameful and disturbing as a man asking for another man’s help. Not only does Barker fail to explore these feelings of shame and disturbance “to their imaginative limits,” Barker fails to explore these feelings entirely (Gilbert 37).

Throughout Regeneration, Barker neglects to examine the suffering of her characters in a meaningful way. Some examples of these failures include: Prior’s relationship with his father, Anderson’s fear of blood, Sassoon’s war medal, Rivers’ dream, the homosexuality of both Sassoon and Owen, Prior’s transference of his mother to Sarah Lumb, and Willard’s psychosomatic paralysis. To examine an acute example of this, during the most emotionally charged scene in Regeneration, when Rivers is searching for Burns in the late-night storm and—in a moment of uncharacteristic clarity—declares “Nothing justifies this. Nothing nothing nothing.” When, upon reaching the tower and locating Burns, Rivers takes “hold of him, and [holds] him, coaching, rocking,” in a tableau of pure, raw emotion; a scene ending with some the novel’s most poignant prose:

His surrender, when it came, was almost shocking. Suddenly his body had the rag-doll floppiness of the newborn. He collapsed against Rivers and started to shake, and from there it was possible to half lead, half push him out of the moat and up on to the relative safety of the path. (Barker 180; emphasis in original)

Full stop. Rather than building upon this scene by, for instance, Burns realising his powerlessness or Rivers questioning his method of treatment, Barker chooses to ignore this scene and continues as though it never occurred. Rivers witnesses Burns’ complete breakdown, remarks “nothing justifies this,” and carries on to the torture of Callan without the slightest indication of how this event affected him (Barker 180; emphasis in original). Barker’s portrayal of Rivers after he witnesses Prior’s breakdown brings whole new meaning to the British maxim that one must always ‘keep a stiff upper lip.’

In conclusion, Regeneration by Pat Barker is an attempt to bring awareness to the deplorable conditions inflicted on the soldiers who fought in the First Great War. However, Barker’s attempt at awareness is at best misguided, and at worst a continuance of the invalid stereotypes and assumptions surrounding those suffering from the psychological effects of war. Some early reviews, such as those by Mitgang, claim “Barker extends the boundaries of antiwar fiction,” while other reviewers assert that Barker’s novel contains “one alarming passage of odd beauty and a number of interesting, semi-developed ideas” (Mitgang; Gilbert). This singular “passage of odd beauty” is a missed opportunity to give a voice to soldiers silenced by the stigma of their mental illness (Gilbert). Regeneration fails to explore the shameful experience of 2Lt. Dyett as his friends were given the order to fire, the hopelessness of Lt. Poole for the heinous crime of getting lost in the fog, and the hundreds of soldiers subjected to torture at the hands of Dr. Yealland and his ilk. Regeneration is a stagnation of stereotypes and harmful assumptions, a justification for the wrongs of a bygone era, and yet another failure to right a deplorable and ongoing wrong.

Works Cited

Baker, Chris. “British Military Crime and Punishment of 1914-1918.” The Long, Long Trail, Accessed 2 Apr. 2017.

Barker, Pat. Regeneration. Penguin Books Ltd., 2008.

Black, Joseph, et al., editors. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature. One-Volume Compact Edition, Broadview P, 2015.

Bogacz, Ted. “War Neurosis and Cultural Change in England, 1914-22: The Work of the War Office Committee of Enquiry into ‘Shell-Shock.’” Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 24, no. 2, Apr. 1989, pp. 227–256,

Corns, Cathryn. “‘Shot at Dawn’: Military Executions in the Great War.” The RUSI Journal, vol. 143, no. 1, Feb. 1998, pp. 53–55, doi:10.1080/03071849808446231.

Gilbert, Harriett. “Minefields — Where Are the Snows by Maggie Gee / Regeneration by Pat Barker.” New Statesman & Society, vol. 4, no. 153, May 1991, p. 36, Business Premium Collection, 224413751; 00827804.

Mitgang, Herbert. “Healing a Mind and Spirit Badly Wounded in the Trenches.” The New York Times  (1923-Current File), 15 Apr. 1992, p. C21,

Owen, Wilfred. “Dulce et Decorum Est.” Broadview Anthology, edited by Black et al., 1920, p. 1830.

Appendix A

Selected list of offences related to cowardice tried by Courts Martial:

Charge Maximum Penalty
Shamefully delivering up a garrison to the enemy. Death
Shamefully casting away arms in the presence of the enemy. Death
Misbehaving before the enemy in such a manner as to show cowardice. Death
When acting as a sentinel on active service sleeping at his post. Death
Striking his superior officer. Death
Disobeying in such a manner as to show a wilful defiance of authority, a lawful command given personally by his superior officer. Death
Deserting HM service, or attempting to desert. Death

(Baker; paraphrased from larger chart)

[1] See Appendix A